Master of disguises

After the student uprising on June 16 and before he went into exile about two months later, Tsietsi Mashinini used his acting abilities along with numerous inventive disguises to evade detection by the police.

The science of not being caught

In his testimony to the TRC, Fanyana Mazibuko, Mashinini's former science teacher, spoke of how the Young Turk tricked the police into thinking he was a construction worker building the school laboratory.

"It became clear that Tsietsi's life was in danger, and he had to be advised to leave the country. I remember that before the principal was detained he had been with Tsietsi on the Sunday night where it was being planned that Tsietsi should leave the country. Now what convinced us that his life was in danger is that one day the police came to the gate and as I saw them approach the gate I locked the gate, and there was a serious confrontation between them and the students which was short of shooting. And what scared me the most was that as I was having an altercation with the police, telling them that they will not enter the gate, I saw Tsietsi pass between me and the police wearing a balaclava and an overall and he was singing very casually, pushing a wheelbarrow like one of the people who were busy building the laboratory in the school. And he announced that it was tea time and he had to go and have tea in the township. He went through a hole in the fence and off he went.

"At that point I became convinced that these fellows, the police, were looking for him and they were not going to arrest him. Secondly he was reckless enough to play games like what he had done. And it was decided that he has to be advised to get out of the scene. And also we felt that if he got killed the morale of the students would go down."

- From:

In the company of laughing women

In this extract from Amandla! The Story of the Soweto Students Representative Council, writer D Ndlovu recalls two instances when Tsietsi donned makeshift disguises to escape the police.

"The police raided schools on several occasions, apparently in an attempt to get hold of SSRC leaders. Tsietsi himself was particularly sought. And during this time a number of 'Tsietsi legends' grew around him. One story was that he was addressing students in a school when a police task force came in through the front gate. Tsietsi, so the story goes, jumped out of the back window, donned an overall borrowed from a labourer working on the drains in the school grounds, and cheerfully swung his pick with the other labourers while the police searched the premises for him.

"Another story was that police surrounded a house one night while Tsietsi was there. Tsietsi quickly put on a girl's dress. The police separated the men from the women, searched the men and then left, leaving Tsietsi happily in the company of the laughing women."


Evading Colonel Visser's men

Khotso Seathlolo was a close comrade of Tsietsi, moving with him into exile and operating from Botswana, among other places. Later, he returned to South Africa, and was the main witness-bearer after Mashinini's death. He was later shocked to find how many young students blamed the parlous state of South African education on the hot-headedness of the June 16, 1976 resisters. This extract is from a letter to Mashinini that formed an obituary after the student leader's death.

"When we sat down to review how we managed to evade arrest by Colonel Visser's men, we could recall only two in which we both made escapes. Many say you always disguised as a woman. The only disguise I know is of that night when you woke me up at my hideout in Meadowlands. You were beautiful. You took me along to meet old man Drake Koka and instructed me to trust him. I did. It was too late when we came back and as Barney [Makhatle] hesitated towards a road block you shouted 'move on'. He did and they stopped us. I sat like a little boy while you were Barney's wife or girlfriend. They used torches and talked to Barney. Colonel Visser was dying for our blood. They took me to him during my detention and he said he could have arrested us were it not for his stupidity - he wanted to have a big arrest."

- Seathlolo, K., Sowetan, August 9, 1990

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"I, Tsietsi Mashinini, appeal to students to report back to school."
Tsietsi Mashinini, 1976
Picture © British Thames Television


In this lesson plan, learners are asked to think about how the different people in their lives would describe them. They are asked to reflect if they think that their caregiver or teacher would say the same things about them as their best friend. They will apply their insights on differing perspectives to historical sources such as newspapers and letters.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
Images from the short life of Tsietsi Mashinini.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Five views of the Tsietsi Mashinini memorial
The concept for the memorial
Johannes Phokela discusses the development of his concept for the memorial to Tsietsi Mashinini
Take a 360º tour of Mashinini's memorial opposite his former high school on Mputhi Street, Soweto.
Audio Slideshow